Sons and Daughters are onto something. This much is for sure. When the Scottish quartet clicks on all cylinders, its taut, tense, sinister folk songs are positively enthralling. But those moments are too far and few in between to consider their debut full-length, The Repulsion Box, an absolute success. The handful of standout tracks show that this is clearly a band to be reckoned with, but it is also one that still needs to find its comfort zone.
It should be clear that The Repulsion Box is far from a bad record. For better or worse, expectations always play a large part in determining how an album will be received, and it was understandable that expectations were high for this one. The group’s debut, 2004’s Love the Cup EP, was an unexpected triumph, one of the most riveting releases of the year. Within the realm of current rock music, it didn’t sound quite like anything else out there. The main influence was certainly dark Americana—Johnny Cash (they even named a song after him), murder ballads, etc.—but there were also hints of new wave and current indie rock that gave it a decisively modern sound. Throw in a defining trademark feature—the oft-dueling (and fiercely Scottish) female/male vocals of Adele Bethel and Scott Paterson, telling tales of love gone wrong and love gone terribly wrong—and this was a band that was on its way.
In some ways The Repulsion Box is a logical next step for Sons and Daughters. The swampy folk is swampier, the lyrics even more treacherous. But rather than up the emotional ante, it instead makes everything feel slightly inauthentic. If Love the Cup was an homage to the sounds the group loved, The Repulsion Box at times comes off as an unintentional mockery.
The mandolin-driven opening track, “Medicine”, is an example of this. The song is a manic slice of downright Celtic rock, with Bethel starting things off by singing “Hit me, hit me, hit me, I’m already on the ground” in her thick, vicious drawl. Drummer David Gow’s insistent, pulsing drumbeat gives the song an over-the-top, almost circus-like quality. Part of what made Love the Cup so thrilling was its understated intensity. Songs like “Broken Bones” and “Fight” galloped along anxiously, never quite reaching a crescendo, but were all the more effective because of it. “Medicine” takes the opposite tract, going full-tilt for its two minutes and ending with a tacked-on, letter-by-letter shout/spelling of the word. If the Pogues had cheerleaders, this might be what they would sound like. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
But then there’s a track like lead single “Dance Me In”. This is the kind of song that leaves you convinced that the number of bands better than Sons and Daughters can be counted on one hand. Like the best songs from Love the Cup, it shows a certain restraint, never getting engulfed in chaos, but the implication is certainly there. It employs an almost militaristic rhythm—think “Orange Crush”, minus a few layers of cheese—and Bethel is at her snarling best on vocals. When she repeatedly pleads “just dance me in”, you get the feeling there will be serious repercussions if this order is not complied with. Besides some additional clanging that adds to the force of the beat, the extracurriculars are kept to a minimum. Paterson’s guitar is sharper than any other song on the record and his background vocals serve as the perfect contrast to Bethel’s. The song is surely destined to appear on many year-end top singles lists.
But nothing else on The Repulsion Box matches up and throughout the brief album (just over 30 minutes); you often get the feeling that something’s just a bit off. In many cases this doesn’t detract from the songs all that much. After all, in the world that Sons and Daughters songs exist, you better believe that things are more than just a bit off. On Love the Cup it really owned its sound, but this time around there’s a somewhat inescapable sense that the group is masquerading as something it isn’t. Everything is delivered with such an invigorating gusto, though, that it’s still quite an enjoyable listen. Bethel and Paterson have a dynamic that is truly something special and on the best songs you really are drawn into their dark, dreary world, whether you like it or not. For an album that leaves you regularly picking out flaws, The Repulsion Box is about as good as it gets.